There is an old world charm about Budapest that is hard not to like. On a recent trip, I discovered that there is so much more to do in Budapest than I expected. I had a couple of plans for when I arrived, but that soon changed once I spoke to a few of the locals and got the inside track on what they loved about their city.
The Danube River forms a natural division. In 1873 the cities of Buda (originally from the word for water) and Pest (from the word for furnace or oven) merged to form the city of Budapest.
Inspiration for what to do in Budapest
Discover Castle Hill
Castle hill covers an area of about a kilometre and sits on top of a labyrinth of limestone caves stretching for 28 km formed by the thermal springs. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area is filled with pretty cobbled streets, medieval and baroque buildings as well as early 19th century homes.
The Buda Castle was built in 1265 for the use of the Hungarian kings shortly after the Mongol invasion. After King Matthias married Beatrix of Naples in 1476 a period known as the golden age started. The queen brought artists and craftsmen with her to help beautify the city and make it become an important player in Europe.
The castle survived the 150-year Ottoman occupation and was then claimed by the Hapsburgs for Austria in 1668. They proceeded to tear down the Grand Palace and build a more ornate Baroque palace which stood for 200 years.
During WWII the palace and more than 32 thousand buildings, were destroyed across the city as well as all the bridges over the Danube. These all had to be rebuilt. The exterior is nothing to get excited about, but the interior is better. It now houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Archives of Hungary, the Budapest History Museum and the Széchenyi Library.
It is worth the climb up the stairs to the castle for the views if nothing else. If you are feeling lazy there is also a funicular railway called the Sikló, built in 1870 that you can use.
This was the church used for the coronation of the Hungarian kings for centuries. Throughout the Ottoman Turk rule, it was also used as a mosque. During a battle to evict the Turks, the church was destroyed and a new one was built on the site. The oldest part of the church dates to the 1300’s. There is a charge of about $5 US to enter the church.
Matthias Church Castle Hill
I loved walking around the bastion. It looks like it could have been a medieval version of sleeping beauty’s castle. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the city to admire the views, especially in the early morning when there are not many people around.
It was built between the years 1895 and 1902. If you think that it looks familiar have a look at the Disney logo. Could this be where Disney got his inspiration from?
The 7 towers are representative of the 7 tribes who were instrumental in the founding of Hungary in 895.
There is an entrance fee for the balconies and top turrets, but the lower areas are free.
I was told that it is a favourite spot for brides to have their wedding photos taken and sure enough when I visited there were 2 brides posing to capture the perfect shot.
It is also worth mentioning that the banks of the Danube below are also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
For another stunning view and yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site make your way to the top of Gellért Hill. It’s particularly popular at sunset.
Budapest’s Statue of Liberty (Szabadság Szobor) stands on the top of the hill and can be seen from all over the city. The statue was erected in 1947 during the Communist rule. Once the communists were ousted all the statues that they had erected were removed. This is the only one that remains.
The Jewish Quarter
If you fall into the hipster category then you will be in your element exploring District VII on the Pest side of the river. Street food, kosher shops, trendy hotels, street art and of course, the famous ruin bars are found here sitting shoulder to shoulder. If you are not sure what ruin bars are here’s the link to a post of mine explaining the wacky concept.
If it’s street food that you are after then I can vouch for Karavan. The area is filled with food trucks all serving the most delicious things imaginable. Be sure to try the lángos (fried dough). You can choose from a huge selection of toppings. Lángos is an institution in Budapest, especially after a great night out in the ruin pubs. It might sound strange, but it is really good and inexpensive.
This synagogue is Europe’s largest and third the largest in the world. It houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum as well as still being in use. The acoustics are remarkable. It’s no wonder that Franz Liszt played at its opening.
On the north side is the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial in remembrance of those killed by the Nazis and sited on a mass grave. The leaves on the tree are inscribed with some the names of the victims of the Holocaust It is quite sobering to see, but you should visit it.
Great Market Hall
If it’s budget-friendly, delicious food you’re after then you should visit the market. CNN Travel rates the market as their no 1 choice in Europe and who am I to argue? It’s also a great place to buy souvenirs. If you plan on visiting the market then you can find more details in my post on the Central Market.
Ride the Millennium Metro Line
The oldest metro in Europe can be found in Budapest. When I first saw the old, dated train arriving at the station I was horrified. Then I found out its history and I was delighted to have had the opportunity to ride on a piece of history. The M1 is even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is worth the price of a ticket just to experience the ride.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
A source that I came across recently claims that this is one of the 10 most photographed buildings in the world. I have no way of verifying this, but it is an attractive building. It is also referred to as Budapest’s cathedral. In case you are wondering where the name came from it is named after the first king of Hungary. Go up into the dome, via a lift, or stairs, for spectacular views of the city.
If you are visiting the Basilica you will probably notice an extremely long queue of people just next to it. If you love gelato you have to visit Gelarto Rosa, an artisanal ice cream shop. They use natural flavours and season ingredients and the end result is heavenly! The gelato is not scooped but a spatula is used to make a beautiful rose for you to enjoy. The possibilities are endless and naturally, each rose looks different.
In the 1880’s a contest was held to design a new home for the Hungarian parliament. The winner took his inspiration from the Houses of Parliament in London. Work began in 1885 and was finished in 1902. It is the third largest parliamentary building in the world.
Fun fact: There is roughly 20 km of stairs throughout the building. You could get a fabulous workout in your lunchtime with all of those stairs!
Szechenyi Chain Bridge
The bridge opened in 1849 linking the two sides of the city and was the first bridge across the Danube. At the time it was also the largest suspension bridge in Europe.
Look out for the lions guarding the bridge. A popular story told is that the lions have no tongues and the sculptor on discovering this threw himself into the Danube and drowned. The sculptor became so tired of hearing this he is believed to have said something like this “They do indeed have tongues! It’s just that they are inside their mouths, for they are not hounds panting in the sun, with their tongues lolling out!” If you look at them from street level you can see the tongues.
The city has 125 springs that provide therapeutic waters for dozens of thermal baths. There are more than enough different types of baths for you to choose from. The largest and the most famous is Széchenyi, which has 15 baths and 3 swimming pools for your enjoyment. Another thermal bathhouse, famed for its Art Nouveau decoration and Roman styled columns is Gellért Baths which has been around since 1918.
The baths also offer extra treatments like a massage, pedicure and spa treatments like a red wine bath. Yup and it really is in wine! You should specify any additional treatments when you buy your ticket.
If wine doesn’t rock your boat how about beer? This treatment is a blend of the components of a beer mixed with the water, You can also drink as much local beer as you like during the spa. It’s quite a wacky idea, but it is rather special.
There is also an etiquette involved when you visit. If you are planning a visit, or fancy an older or smaller bath here is a list of some of the better ones as well as the dos and donts in the baths.
Let them eat cake!
If you have a sweet tooth then you must try some of the delicious creations on offer throughout the city. Tourists seem to head to the New York Cafe supposedly the most beautiful cafe in the world. I was told by a local that there was a much better spot, the Cafe Gerbeaud so naturally, I had to go and check it out. I’ll let the photo tell the story.
Well, there you have it! You now won’t be short of ideas on what to do in Budapest when you’re there. Of course, there are loads of other things to do that I haven’t really touched on, but for me, these constitute the main sights and things to do in the city and you can really only scratch the surface in a couple of action-packed days.
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